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Nepotism in the Academy Raises Serious Questions

Recent incidents involving family members who work together at institutions of higher learning have sparked renewed discussion about nepotism policies and related conflicts of interest on college campuses.

In August, a husband and wife, highly respected computer science professors at Carnegie Mellon University, announced that they would resign effective Aug. 21, 2019, with an email by her citing “sexist management” and “professional harassment.”

Dr. Gregory F. ScholtzDr. Gregory F. Scholtz

And it was reported in September that the husband of the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater was removed from his unpaid advisory role as associate to the chancellor – and banned from campus events – after an internal investigation determined that some sexual harassment allegations against him were credible.

Such incidents raise thorny issues about couples – or even parents and children – working together in the academy. Although some see the benefits of hiring family, which can include the likelihood of longer-term stability, it’s a two-sided coin with a major potential peril: if one decides to leaves, the other is likely to follow.

The possibility of a conflict of interest is ever-present, especially when they work in the same department, and often a perception is that the two will act as one – or should be treated as a unit, for better or worse.

“There’s a reason there are nepotism policies,” said Dr. Gregory F. Scholtz, director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance at the American Association of University Professors. “When you have family members operating in the same institution, especially close proximity, there will be some conflicts of interest. I’ve seen on smaller campuses that married couples tend to act in concert. That can make them more effective than, say, people who have no familial ties.”

The issue is largely a matter of shared governance, he added.

“Some places have policies against it, and some have policies for it. Sometimes it depends on the size and location of a school, and to get qualified faculty to come, you need to be able to hire their spouses or partners, as well.”

Schools in rural areas and smaller towns sometimes find that pro-nepotism policies are necessary to attract employees, as opposed to settings where there are more opportunities for family to find work outside the school, said Scholtz.

“You’ll lose a candidate sometimes, especially when there aren’t a lot of other opportunities outside the university, and even in urban areas,” said Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law. “If a candidate’s spouse can’t find employment, a school can lose people. Some couples commute and see if they can bring the spouse later, and if not they quit. That’s a challenge for a lot of couples and family members.”

Peter F. LakePeter F. Lake

Although the AAUP doesn’t have an official position on nepotism, the organization sometimes appoints a committee to investigate unresolved issues that appear to be severe deviations from or violations of shared governance or academic freedom. The goal is to preserve institutional standing rather than promote individual benefit, Scholtz said.

According to AAUP standards, policies governing such relationships should be formulated primarily by faculty and administrators before formal adoption by an institution’s governing board, Scholtz said.

Given the many possible entanglements, from favoritism to information-sharing, trustees rather than faculty ought to be taking the lead in formulating nepotism policies, said Lake.

“If you have a policy about consensual relations, but an exception [for spouses), then the policy favors marriage over other relationships,” said Lake, adding that he wonders how civil rights enforcement agencies may act at some point given the various ways nepotism policies could be discriminatory.

“Given the culture that we’re in now with concerns about privacy and harassment and conflicts of interest, interpersonal relationships that are beyond business relationships in the workplace are challenged,” he said. “There’s almost no scenario where there aren’t complications.”

“Another dimension is, who is refereeing the tough calls, if there are any? It’s a pretty tough situation in some scenarios,” Lake said.

He questioned if the academy is better off or worse “by sending the message that virtually every interpersonal relationship, if not professional, is inappropriate or challenging.”

Many schools tout themselves as a family, he added, until an employee tries to introduce family – then there may be a problem. Problems also can arise for family members whose relationship was fine under one administration’s discretionary policy, then the next administration decides to change the policy.

“Love is a little dangerous in higher ed.”

LaMont Jones can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLaMontJones

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